Serious Sandwiches: Johnnie's Combo Beef, Chicago

I wonder if Miamians get bored with the Cuban sandwich or Philadelphians forego the Philly cheesesteak for long periods of time. I know, with so many new restaurants opening each day and so many tasty leads to follow, sometimes I take the local food icons here in Chicago for granted. I even forsake them occasionally. But, with so many fanny pack clad tourists descending on our city in search of salad dogs, deep dish pizza, and the Italian beef, I don't really think they need me.

Fast forward to last Thursday when I just happened to be driving through Elmwood Park, a suburb adjacent to the Northwest side of Chicago city proper, and I spotted one of my favorite Italian beef stands: Johnnie's. You know the soup nazi? Well, Johnnie's proprietors are the beef Nazis. They make you wait in a single file line and if you're the next person in line in front of the entrance door and you thing about holding it open to suck up some warm beefy air on a cold or rainy day, don't do it. If you let so much as a minor draft sneak in to the store, you'll get glares from the employees and customers alike. You also better have your order together when you hit the cash register and it better not include cheese on your beef (which is pretty much an equivalent crime in these parts to putting ketchup on your hot dog), unless, of course, you want to get laughed at.

The Italian beef usually consists of a thick Italian style roll filled with roasted thinly sliced beef that's been marinated in a bevy of spices like garlic and oregano. My favorite, Al's original on Taylor, has a hint of nutmeg. Then you get choices: you can get it "dipped", which means the whole sandwich gets dunked in the roasting gravy or jus before getting wrapped up, or you can get it "dry", aka no dip. Likewise, you can get it "sweet" or "hot," which indicates whether you get sweet green peppers or a spicy giardinara—usually consisting of celery, onion, and various peppers—on top. I prefer mine sweet, hot, and dipped.

As I was saying, I spotted Johnnie's and though it was 2 p.m. and I'd already had a big lunch, I stopped. I don't get much of a shot at Johnnie's since it's about ten miles away from my condo, so you gotta take the beef when you can get it. Though Al's is my favorite, Johnnie's is my favorite combo, which means in addition to the beef, they add a fat link of Italian sausage. Johnnie's link has a nice red pepper spice and a healthy bit of fennel, and, as far as I'm concerned, when joined with Johnnie's lean, reasonably well spiced beef, makes the best combo around.

Sitting in my car and unwrapping the butcher paper was torture, but that first bite was a reminder that no matter how much Johnnie's doesn't need me, I'd forgotten how much I needed Johnnie's.

About the author: Michael Nagrant writes for Serious Eats from Chicago, where he also publishes Hungry magazine. Michael never met an organ meat he didn't like. He hopes to meet many more.

Johnnie's

Address: 7500 W North Avenue, Elmwood Park, IL 60707 (map)
Phone: 708-452-6000

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